Eating and Identity

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“You are what you eat.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never considered myself to be a plate of chilaquiles and two scoops of ice cream. This old adage that the food you eat becomes you may seem far-fetched when stated so blatantly, but isn’t this what today’s culture asks us to believe about ourselves every single day? What if I were to say it another way: “I’m doing a juice cleanse at the moment and I’ve cut out sugar and gluten entirely for the foreseeable future…”. Does that maybe sound a little more familiar? As a culture, we have begun to shape our identities around the notions of what we do or do not eat, and, though having a different diet is never a wrong thing, I would argue that this framework for our relationship to food creates an unhealthy pattern of thinking in the average person.

Since food and eating is such a major and inescapable aspect of any culture, it can be an easy way to express individuality. Now, I’m not saying people make these food choices consciously to set themselves apart as different, but there remains a temptation to make our food preferences who we are.  How many times have you heard a friend proudly announce that they’ve stopped eating [blank], or that they’ve started the [blank] diet? Many of these choices are made for health or moral reasons (perhaps in the case of veganism, vegetarianism, or a gluten-free diet for those who have Celiac disease).  However, even choices made for good or logical reasons can eventually grow in importance until they become part of your identity. Semantically, it can be the difference between “I have cut sugar out of my diet” and “I am sugar-free.” One is an action, the other is an identity.

Problem

The problem with incorporating food choices and preferences into your identity is that this gives food much more power than it needs to have, which can develop into a problematic relationship with food. Food has a purpose: it gives us nutrition and energy to survive. And yet, even though food already has the amazing power to fuel our brains, our bodies, and our lives, we have given it an additional power of informing and changing our identity, self esteem, and self image. A cookie is no longer carbohydrates, fat, sugar, and protein, all of which we need to keep our bodies healthy; a cookie has now been categorized as  a “bad” food, and by eating it we also become “bad.” This is the essence of “cheat days” and statements like “I know I just ate that extra piece of cake, but it’s okay. I’m being naughty; I am treating myself today and I’ll just make up for it by eating better tomorrow.”

When you experience a marked change in the way you view yourself after eating certain foods, it may be a sign that food has become part of your identity. Eating any particular food doesn’t make you bad, or lacking in self control,  or gluttonous, or whatever label you give yourself. It’s the issues of moderation, identity, self-esteem, and your relationship with food that really counts. Food is an amoral entity in this world, as in sugar isn’t the devil and fat isn’t the enemy. Therefore, food cannot make you “good” or “bad.” Over the course of months and years, it can change your physical appearance and make your health better or worse, but it doesn’t change who you are as a person.

Freedom

When the food you eat no longer has the power to shape your identity and self esteem, you are freed to listen to your body and eat intuitively. This doesn’t mean that you will binge on all the foods you find scariest, or that you will lose all self control. Stopping the deprivation does not mean that you must indulge. Recognizing that the apple on your kitchen counter may have more nutrition to offer you than that candy bar is a healthy way to relate to food, and so eating a candy bar less frequently than an apple is perhaps a positive decision. But don’t hate the candy bar! It has something to offer the world too!

Understanding that food is fuel compels us to learn to listen to our body’s signals and cues, and frees us up to give the body what it needs. So, eat the apple (in moderation), and eat the candy bar (in moderation), but never let either of them define you.

Laura Lanier Licensed Professional Counselor-InternIf you are struggling with the power that food has over your life, or if you have ever struggled with any form of disordered eating, I would love to talk to you about it! Give me a call at 940-222-8703 x705, send me an email: [email protected], or click here to schedule with me online!

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